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JOHN MILTON was born in Bread Street, London, on the 9th of December, 1608. He was descended from a respectable family long resident at Milton, in Oxfordshire. His father, John Milton, the celebrated composer, was disinherited in consequence of his embracing the Protestant religion, and was compelled to abandon the prosecution of his studies at Oxford, to seek the means of subsistence in London, where he adopted the profession of a scrivener. The son owed much to the early advantages which he enjoyed in the assiduous cares of his parent, and he has recorded his filial obligations in the elegant Latin poem AD PATREM. His father, as Milton himself informs us, very early destined him to the study of elegant literature; and so eagerly did he engage in it, that he seldom quitted his studies for his bed till the middle of the night: this excessive application injured his eyes, and laid the foundation of his subsequent blindness; but nothing could restrain his ardour for learning; and his father, correctly appreciating these indications of future eminence, spared no expense in providing for his education.
After passing some time under the superintendance of the Rev. Thomas Young, and subsequently at St. Paul's school, he was entered a pensioner at Christ's College, Cambridge, on the 12th of February, 1624-5, being already, although only in his seventeenth year, an accomplished scholar. He took his bachelor's degree in January, 1628-9, and that of master of arts three years after. He then retired to his father's house at Horton, in Buckinghamshire, leaving behind him a moral character untarnished, and a memory cherished with affection and respect by the fellows of his college. His religious and political opinions had however subjected him to the disapprobation and even the enmity of some of his superiors in the university, an enmity which pursued him with detraction when he was placed beyond the limits of authority.
Milton, it is said, when only ten years old, discovered a talent for versification; but the earliest specimen of his genius extant is his translation of the cxxxvth Psalm, which evinces his progress in poetical expression at the age of fifteen. During the five happy years of romantic leisure that he passed in Buckinghamshire under his father's roof, he composed the Comus in 1634, the Lycidas in 1637, and probably about the same period, the Arcades, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso. There
is no doubt that the landscape, in the last two poems, is from nature: it has all the vividness of reality, and all the redolence of genuine feeling.
In 1638, having recently lost his mother, Milton resolved on visiting the Continent. He was received at Paris with distinction by Lord Scudamore, the ambassador from England, by whom he was introduced to the celebrated Grotius. From thence he proceeded to Genoa, to Florence, and to Rome, attended by the applauses and the compliments of the literati of Italy. At Naples he became the inmate of the venerable Manso, Marquis of Villa, the friend and biographer of Tasso and of Marino: an epistle to this distinguished nobleman is among bis Latin poems. As he was preparing to pass from Naples into Sicily and Greece, the intelligence from England of the civil war recalled him to his native country, "for he esteemed it," as he himself expresses it," dishonourable for him to be lingering abroad, even for the improvement of his mind, while bis fellow citizens were contending for their liberty at home."
On his arrival in England, Milton resided in St. Bride's Church Yard, where he undertook the education of his two nephews, Edward and John Philips, and the children of some other friends; but he soon afterwards removed to Aldersgate Street; at this time, while occupied with the fatiguing duties of an instructor of boys, he commenced the career of his public life as a polemic writer, in a controversy concerning episcopal government, with Bishop Hall and Archbishop Usher.
In 1643 he married Mary, the daughter of Mr. Richard Powel, a zealous royalist, of Forest Hill, near Shotover, in Oxfordshire. Her desertion of him, soon after he brought her home to London, under the pretence of revisiting her family, was the occasion of his publications on the "Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce," which drew down upon him the indignation of the Presbyterian clergy, regardless of whose opposition he proceeded to prefer his addresses to a beautiful and accomplished young lady, the daughter of a Doctor Davis. Before however he had engaged her affections so far as to gain her consent to the marriage treaty, while visiting at the house of a relation, he found his wife prostrate before him, imploring bis forgiveness;
Soon his heart relented
nor did his renovated love alone content itself with this single triumph over his resentment: he extended both his protection
and support to her parents and to their numerous family at the very crisis of their ruin, in consequence of the battle of Naseby, so fatal to the royal cause. In this year also he published his "Treatise on Education," and his "Areopagitica," in defence of the freedom of the press. In 1647 he lost his father, who expired in his arms.
In 1649, he was appointed Latin Secretary by the Council of State, at whose instigation he undertook to counteract the apprehended effects of the "ICON BASILIKE," by his "ICONOCLASTES" and in 1651, he produced his celebrated" Defence of the People of England," which made its author the subject of conversation both at home and abroad. His total loss of sight, of which he had been forewarned by his physicians, succeeded these exertions in 1652. Early in the same year his wife died in childbed of his third daughter, Deborah. It is not exactly ascertained when he married his second wife, Catharine, the daughter of Captain Woodcock, of Hackney, who also died in childbed, within the first year of their marriage: but it was in 1662 that be married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, the daughter of a gentleman of Cheshire.
While engaged in the above controversies, three great works engaged his attention at intervals, and formed that change of literary exercise in which he delighted. These were, a History of England, a Thesaurus of the Latin language, and an Epic Poem. In 1667, the first edition of PARADISE LOST was given to the world. If any thing could enhance the surpassing merits of this noblest achievement of poetry, it would be the circumstances under which its execution was completed: blind, reduced in his fortunes, " encompassed with dangers as well as with darkness," his mind had lost none of its energy; the spirit of the man and the Christian was unbroken by the annihilation of the patriot's hopes: in the night which enveloped his visual sense, the heaven of intellect was revealed with the more distinctness to that gaze which was thenceforward to be fixed on the realities of eternity.
In the progress of his studies, the blindness of Milton was assisted by the recitations of his two youngest daughters, who, extraordinary as the fact may appear, were taught to read at least six different languages, without understanding any of them; a circumstance which, placed in connexion with the composition of Paradise Lost, has recently employed the pencils of several of our painters. Their father, however, dispensed with their assistance, on their complaining of the irksomeness of the occupation, and dismissed them to tasks better adapted to their inclinations and their sex.
"Paradise Regained" was composed during his temporary residence at Chalfont St. Giles's, in Buckinghamshire, at the time that the plague was raging in the capital. It was not published till 1670, when it appeared with "Samson Agonistes. A few subsequent publications in English and Latin prose, closed his literary labours. An attack of the gout, a disease which had for many years afflicted him, terminated his life on the 8th of November, 1674. His body was deposited by the side of that of his father, in the upper part of the chancel of St. Giles's, Cripplegate, where a marble bust by Bacon has recently been erected to his memory.
By his first wife he left three daughters, of whom (but more certainly of the elder two) it is painful to record, that their conduct was the reverse of that of filial love and duty; to them he left their mother's portion, which had never been paid to him his other property, amounting, notwithstanding his heavy losses, to about fifteen hundred pounds, he bequeathed to his widow; but from the unfortunate omission of some material forms in the will, which was only nuncupative or declaratory, the daughters were enabled successfully to contest its validity.
The person of Milton was of the middle height, compact and muscular. "His harmonical and ingenuous soul," says one of his early biographers," dwelt in a beautiful and well proportioned body." At Cambridge, the fineness of his complexion occasioned him to be called the lady of Christ's College;" his eyes were dark gray, and retained, even after the total extinction of vision, a peculiar vividness; his light brown hair, parted at the top, fell" clustering" upon his shoulders. His voice was delicately sweet and harmonious, and bis ear excel. lent. In his habits he was remarkably frugal and regular, rising in summer at four, and in winter at five. A chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures being read to him as soon as he was up, he passed the subsequent interval till seven, in private meditation; after which study, exercise, and the recreation of music, of which he was particularly fond, divided the day till six, when he admitted the visits of his friends; he took his abstemious supper at eight, and at nine he retired. His manners were affable and graceful; his temper grave without melancholy; his affections ardent. Such was John Milton, in whom were combined all the rarer qualities which dignify our nature, and of whom it constitutes the noblest panegyric, that his works are not less the just expression of his character, than the monuments of his genius.